Monday, November 17, 2014

When bike paths are not transportation

I've written before about the capacity of bike paths to move large numbers of people. A dedicated bike path performs this function best when it connects dense residential neighborhoods with dense job centers. The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are great examples of this. They may not transport as many people in a day, but they don’t transport thousands of dangerous, wasteful motor vehicles either. This is why we should convert one lane of the Brooklyn Bridge to a two-way bike path.

That said, a frequent train line can beat a bike path, or even a car lane, any day. On the Manhattan Bridge one fall day in 2012, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council’s Hub-Bound Travel Study, one car lane carried almost five times as many people as the bike lane, but one subway track carried 36 times as many.


With that in mind, let’s turn to the Rockaway Beach Branch, and to a proposal to convert it to a bike trail instead of reactivating train service. The Trust for Public Land argues that it “will” (not “could”) fulfill a similar transportation function:

Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations. … Using the QueensWay to connect to subway stations, commuters could save 15 – 20 minutes each way to major work destinations such as Midtown Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn. Residents will also be able to use the QueensWay to connect to stores and other destinations.

Yes, that’s nice, but how many of them would actually use it? I could save ten to fifteen minutes off my commute by biking to the subway station, but I don’t do it because there’s just a plain rack to lock it to. There is no secure bike parking at any subway station near me, and there is none proposed in the trail plan.

Even assuming that secure parking was built, or that every potential bike commuter was comfortable locking their bike up at a plain old rack (and that the city built enough additional plain old racks to accommodate them, how many cyclists are we talking about? I’m guessing it would be far below the 2,601 cyclists that the NYMTC counted on the Manhattan Bridge on that fall day in 2012.

Now let’s assume that instead we brought trains back to the Rockaway Beach Branch. Let’s assume that the service is the crappiest possible: less than once an hour off-peak and a mandatory change to get to Manhattan, like the Long Island Rail Road Oyster Bay Branch. We would still get at least 3,350 riders a day (PDF).

If instead we dug a tunnel under a few blocks of Rego Park and ran the R train out to Howard Beach, we would see a lot more riders. Even if there were only four stations and all of them had the ridership of the 104th Street station on the A train (1,736), that would still be almost 7,000 riders a day. The least popular station on the R train, 36th Street in Long Island City, saw 4,540 riders last year, and I’ve proposed adding stations at Myrtle Avenue and Fleet Street to serve large buildings that were built since the line’s fortune declined. The half million riders heralded by some rail proponents may be too ambitious, but even if the line is a dismal failure it would serve far more people per day than a trail.

If you’re still thinking of the bike trail as a transportation project, look at this quote from the Trust for Public Land:

To ensure safety and security for neighbors and park users, the QueensWay will have gates at all entrances. The QueensWay will close at dusk except during winter months, when it will remain open slightly later to accommodate commuters.

(I’m pretty sure that last part about remaining open slightly later was added after I tweeted about this.) The bike paths on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges are open twenty-four hours. That’s because they’re transportation infrastructure, not parks.

6 comments:

BBnet3000 said...

The difference, I suppose, is that a bike path has much lower operating costs, even including the cost of secure bike parking. A low ridership subway line could be seen as a loss leader that the system cant afford, especially with capital costs upfront. That's not to say that the supposed transportation benefits of a bike path here aren't specious, I certainly see this as a primarily recreational path in the near to medium term.

On a semi-related note, I would love to see a NYCT secure bike parking initiative when the next-gen farecard rolls out. A locked room or even gated outdoor yard, like several BART stations have, accessible via your farecard (linked to a credit card for accountability). There is room for this at a decent amount of stations in the outer boroughs.

S Bauman said...

There's a big problem in using Oyster Bay as the basis for estimating demand for a reactivated Rockaway Beach Branch.

There are no rail alternatives for using the LIRR from Oyster Bay.

All but the Parkside station on the Rockaway Beach Branch are within 1/2 mile of an existing subway station. The Parkside station is within 1 mile of the Continental Ave station.

The public has consistently opted for less expensive service When given a choice between inexpensive subways/buses and more expensive LIRR train service.

Capn Transit said...

S, I honestly don't think it's so much expense as frequency. For that reason, I think it should be connected to the subway. The LIRR management has no interest in running anything at a reasonable frequency.

FJP said...

I'm all for incorporating safe cycling options into steeet and transit design. But it's a big leap from that to using a bike path as a SUBSTITUTE for a public transit route. What about all the members of the public for whom bicycling is not a realistic option, due to age, disability, or simply living in a fourth floor walkup building with no secure place to store a bike at ground level?

Philip McManus said...

We need more railways in Queens and the outer boroughs. Just like the 7 train extension, the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, the new Penn. Station, and the Fulton Transit Center which are all located in the inner borough. Why is it affordable and doable in Mangattan and not Queens? Sounds like a tale of two boroughs.
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Capn Transit said...

Phil, I'm not that concerned if more things are built in Manhattan, because Manhattan is indeed special: http://capntransit.blogspot.com/2011/08/manhattan-is-special.html

That said, I agree that we should expand rail transit in Queens. Keep fighting for it!